Women in AI: Ren Zhang
As a child, Ren Zhang always loved math and enjoyed solving mathematical problems. She went on to study statistics and probabilities at Beijing University, then attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for her PhD in statistics.
Kicking off her career in credit risk management at American Express, Ren took advantage of the plethora of opportunities available to her. “It’s a big company, they let you experience tons of different jobs,” she recounts, and she eventually moved up to a VP role in Risk and Information Management in Enterprise Growth, which was a new division for the company at that time, driving revenue streams beyond credit cards. As one of the first Risk Management employees, Ren set out to disrupt American Express and the banking world as a whole. Ren leaned on her financial and data science experience to spearhead new and innovative projects, providing experiences that were invaluable as her career developed and evolved.
After nearly 13 years at American Express, Ren moved to Commonwealth Bank of Australia as the Executive Director of Data Science and Innovation. She then joined Prudential as VP of Data Science before joining BMO Financial Group, where she is now the Enterprise Chief Data Scientist. Ren initially became interested in AI and machine learning because “it’s the future,” she says, “especially in banking — AI is unstoppable.”
Ren believes that AI will quickly become integrated into the DNA of almost every industry. “My passion in math gave me the ability to see this trend and I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of transforming the future and making a difference,” she says. “No one can truly claim they are an expert in this field, nor will anyone always be an expert, because we are all constantly learning and trying something new.”
Ren’s many mentors throughout her career helped shape her strong leadership skills, offering her advice along the way that still resonates. She was advised to speak up and offer her opinions more frequently in meetings. One of her mentors pointed out that as an expert in the subject, she should have contributed more than her less knowledgeable male colleagues (who usually spoke up more frequently). As Ren puts it: “Most women will usually only speak up if they are 80% or more confident in what they have to say, whereas most men are more likely to speak up if they’re 20% confident. Women need to be more vocal.”
Ren believes that a twofold approach can encourage more women to pursue STEM careers: “We need programs that expose more girls to STEM careers before college. There should be more outreach programs as early as middle or high school to give girls awareness and show them excitement. Quite a lot of nonprofit orgs out there are already doing this. Corporations can help drive more,” she says. The second point is to have more successful women executives. Companies can help ensure women have the appropriate training and opportunity for growth: “At BMO, we are committed to diversity — 40% of our senior leaders are women. The tide will turn, it takes awareness and effort, but it can be done.”